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“Who are you?”
The words came out tight and raspy. The stranger in the bathroom mirror stared back at me through wild, bloodshot eyes, a sad, hollow shadow of who I used to be.
What had been a shiny black sheet of silken hair falling softly past my waist was now ragged and clumpy, and looked as though I’d taken a straight-edged razor and carved out uneven chunks from the ends. My nails were broken, cracked, and torn. Every trace of pale pink nail polish scuffed away by the hundreds of miles of dirt and rocks I had traveled over to get here.
I traced my tongue along lips that were wind-chapped and split. Teeth that had ripped into fur and raw flesh were in sore need of a toothbrush, or blow torch, and a gallon of mouthwash.
My body ached in ways I never thought possible.
And I was hungry. So hungry. The few rabbits and squirrels I’d managed to hunt down and catch didn’t come close to filling the hole that seven days of hard running had left in my stomach.
My oddly two-toned blue eyes were the only feature about me that held any life—but what I saw in them frightened me.
Whoever I’d been before had disappeared like a shadow.
The years I’d spent holding a tight rein on the savage, primitive animal inside me had been for nothing.
I’d let it loose. I had run.
What I saw staring back at me now was feral. Untamed.
Not beaten. Not broken.
I glanced around the long, granite countertop, at the small cardboard box labeled Jess—bathroom. There were two other similarly labeled boxes stacked in the corner. I wasn’t sure if they had been packed to leave, or had been left there in the process of unpacking to stay. Makeup tubes and compacts lay scattered near the sink along with hair products, brushes, and a blow dryer.
It seemed strange to stand in the middle of such a normal place while my entire world fell apart.
The thumping bass from the speakers outside pounded against the house and drowned out the sounds of the wedding party, which, in itself, I found odd. A wedding? Our kind, married? Like humans?
How much of our world had Rule kept from his pack?
One thing I’d come to believe, that in keeping his pack like pampered pets on a tight-fisted leash, Rule had robbed us of our true nature. Everything I’d learned about who I truly was inside, behind my human mask, I had learned through trial and error. Over the last week, I’d learned how to move with stealth. How to track. How to kill. How to survive.
How to trust my instincts.
And so, I’d ended up in the middle of nowhere: Comfort, Texas.
While the wedding party went on outside, I had slipped into the house, taking the chance my unwashed odor would be lost or mingled in with the smell of the pack, of roasting meat over a smoky barbeque, over horses and cows and the fragrant, green brush.
Here, in this room, a scent I recognized from the past surrounded me, comforted me, helped me focus on my purpose—and not the stink of my own filthy body.
The familiar scent of fresh flowers and green fields belonged to Jessica Maccon.
Not that Jessica was my friend. I didn’t have friends. And the blame was all mine. Even though my mother had controlled so much of my life, I could’ve made the effort. I could’ve been…nice. Friendly. I never believed I needed friends before, especially a transplant female from Albuquerque who stayed only a couple of years and then left. She was an outsider. Not a true member of Rule’s pack. And that made her untrustworthy.
That is my mother talking.
Jessica was honest and honorable.
There was not one member of my own pack I could trust to help me do what I was about to do. I wouldn’t blame Jessica if she flat refused, or called for her pack Alpha to have me escorted off and banned from their territory.
But…that wasn’t Jessica’s way.
No matter how busy she was, she had always greeted everyone with a smile. Even me. Every day had seemed a fresh start to her. She seemed to have the ability to look past my awful behavior. I could only hope she would do so again.
She’d been kind to me. To everyone. Always.
And I’d been horrible to her. To everyone. Always.
Jessica wouldn’t turn me away without letting me explain. She’d consider it, weigh the pros and cons and even if the cons outweighed the pros, she’d offer some good, honest advice before sending me on my way.
Advice was the best I could hope for.
Hope. What a seriously foolish notion.
If this pack refused my plea for help, I’d slink away and find somewhere else to hide. But, without a friend inside the pack, finding even a small amount of protection would be difficult, if not impossible. The last thing I wanted was to become another Alpha’s property.
I focused once more on the unrecognizable female in the mirror. With too little sleep and too little to eat, the sunken cheeks and black rings around my eyes gave me an almost skeletal look. Muscles I never knew I possessed stretched thin over my bones. In seven days, I’d run off most of my curves. Except, of course, my breasts.
My ugly, scarred breasts.
I closed my eyes.
Breathe. Just breathe. You’re okay.
I understood what it meant to run. Going back would mean a death sentence.
I sent my fingertips over the shiny brands—the hideous proof of why I’d run, why I’d abandoned my pack—burned into my skin, a constant and terrible reminder of the male who’d tried to own me.
At least the physical pain had disappeared.
I sucked in a breath, opened my eyes, and looked at what my pack Alpha had done as he sought to possess my body.
Blood seemed to boil in my veins as tears burned my eyes.
Don’t cry. Get angry.
Footsteps came from outside the bedroom connected to the bathroom where I stood hidden. Jessica’s voice came with them.
“If I plan on dancing any more, I’ll have to get out of these shoes, too.”
Another female spoke. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather Dain come help you out of this dress? I’m thinking he’d really enjoy that.”
“So would I, but then we’d be missing our own party because you know as well as I do, we’d end up in here the rest of the night, banging like bunnies.”
Jessica laughed. It was sweet and husky and for some strange reason, tugged at my racing heart.
“Well, there is that.”
“I get to have him for the rest of my life so I’m pretty sure we can—” Jessica’s voice halted.
Apparently, she’d caught my scent.
I grabbed a towel from the stack behind me and wrapped it around my naked body. My heart pounded in my ears as I listened, and waited, and prayed.
Please remember me. Please remember me. Please. Please.
I had a life plan: Get out of San Francisco. Go home. Start my new job.
I wanted to get on with my life. Break free from The City pack rules. Let my wolf side run wild and free. Feel the earth beneath my feet and howl at the moon.
But when I stopped in Comfort, Texas, to spend a quiet 2-week winter vacation with my dad and his mate, all of my best-laid plans took a sudden turn.
I hadn’t planned for Dain Louvel. Okay, so maybe I’d secretly hoped to see him, again, but I didn’t expect all those feelings I’d felt for him before to come rushing back and blindside me. I'd moved on. Well, sort of.
The problem is, I hadn’t planned on the sakana bond, that rare and precious bond few wolves ever experienced, to connect our minds, our bodies, and our souls.
I also hadn't planned on fighting for my life.
But, yeah, stuff happens in Comfort, Texas. I really should've planned better.
“Wanna run, baby girl?”
My dad might have thought it was a simple question. It wasn’t. At least not to me.
I yanked at the handle and smiled at the familiar creak as the old Chevy truck door swung open. The cold, wide-open Texas air struck me, along with the perfume of withered grass, dry earth, and horses. There were cattle out there as well, somewhere, roaming on the acres and acres of flat land and rolling hills. Above it all was a scent I had missed desperately for the last two years: clean and fresh and heavenly.
“Go for it.” My dad reached over the side of the truck bed and pulled out two of my many suitcases. “Long plane ride, long truck ride…a nice run will probably do you some good.”
I looked up at the big ranch house, shaded on one side by tall pines. Part of me was already in there—and in my mind’s eye, I wasn’t alone.
Weird, how that worked. How seeing him in the flesh only twice in my life had made such an undeniable impression. Oh, I’d gazed on him a lot more than twice, but those other times were in the one and only photograph I had, or vivid dreams, or any other time my mind had nowhere else to focus.
Go on in. Say “hey”. Try not to act so pathetically obsessed.
I jumped at my dad’s clipped tone. “What?”
A crease of confusion sat deep between golden eyes I’d been blessed to inherit. “What the hell did that pack do to you?”
Shocked, I stared at him. A cold sweat burst out over my skin. There was no way he could know what had happened to me. I hadn’t told anyone, not even my best friend, Jules.
“Nothing,” I choked out. “Why?”
“Never seen you work so hard to make up your mind.” He reached in the back of the truck and lifted out two more suitcases. “If you’re worrying about Maygan, don’t. She knew you were coming in late. I’ll let her know you needed a run. It’s not that big a deal, baby girl.” He grabbed a couple more suitcases and set them down next to the others. “You’re not scared, are you? Of running out in the dark? Ain’t nothing out there you can’t handle.”
I shook my head. “No, that’s not it.” The dark didn’t scare me. But to be surrounded by the clean, masculine scent I’d obsessed over for so long? Now that was scary. I’d set myself up for it, prepared for it. I could do it. I could be here, spend a nice relaxing two weeks, then move on with my new life plan.
“I can go with you.” He gave my shoulder a playful bump. “Or I’m sure Dain would be glad to—”
“Dad, no!” Out in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, with Dain, my obsession? Yeah…no. I kicked off my flats. “I’m okay, and yeah, I need a good run. I won’t be long.”
“Take as much time as you need.” He tucked a couple of my suitcases under his arms, grabbed the handles of two more, and left me standing there as he took the steps up onto the porch.
I stripped off my dress, bra, and panties. The cold air licked at my naked body, called to the wolf in me. Pushing off hard and shifting on the fly, I soared through the air. My paws hit the ground and I couldn’t run fast enough. But I needed to move a hell of a lot faster to outrun the desire to turn back, race into the house, and seek out what my heart and my body wanted more than anything else.
After two long years spent cooped up in a tiny apartment in San Francisco, it felt fantastic to stretch my legs.
I’d left my home in Albuquerque to find excitement, glamour, nightlife—because yeah, San Francisco. One week at my new job and anxiety had replaced excitement. Glamour? Somehow, I’d missed out on that. Nightlife? The City pack had their own private “nightlife” customs I, unfortunately, found myself tied up in, literally. Secret, forbidden customs I wasn’t allowed to talk about with anyone.
I was an outsider. No matter how nice I was, or how well I did my job, only a few of my new packmates seemed to accept me. Well, in their grudgingly standoffish way. Still, I didn’t belong there. Deep in my human heart and wolf soul, I belonged in the wide-open country, not restricted to my little apartment in a big, stinky city. So, I was going home. Back to Albuquerque.
I needed to break the news to my dad. Why I hadn’t told him during the ride back from the airport, I didn’t know. I’d hoped he would say something first—maybe ask me why I had packed my entire wardrobe into every suitcase I owned for a two-week vacation—but he hadn’t.
My dad wasn’t the sort of male who would scold me for giving up. That wasn’t who he was. He’d been glad I’d wanted to seek out an adventure. He’d been thrilled I wanted to break out on my own. And he’d be just as happy I’d tried, and determined it wasn’t the life for me.
But I’d failed. Failed.
And that wasn’t even the right word for what I’d done. If there existed one word to describe how nothing had turned out the way I planned, I wasn’t familiar with it, but that was the word.
The new-adventure experience wore off before the first full moon, a night I would’ve normally spent out dancing with my girlfriends, cutting loose, having a good time, but I’d ended up locked in my tiny apartment, pacing like a caged animal. I liked my job, but the odd, new pack and weird, oppressive rules were so not my style. That, and the fact I missed my family and friends like mad. And what was up with that strange, gaping hole in my heart, and the bizarre sensation that my soul had torn in two?
I’d spent too much time wasted in misery, apart from everyone and everything I loved. In trying to move on, I’d cut all ties to my old life, even with my life-long friends, thinking the sounds of their voices would weaken my resolve. Looking back, I don’t know how long I would have wallowed in my self-imposed “solitary-confinement”. My true strength came from the love of my family, my friends, and the pack I’d grown up in. All it took to change my mind was the sound of my oldest brother’s voice on the phone, reminding me just how much love I had missed out on.
Now, going home to Albuquerque was my new plan. With a new job. A new home. To family. To friends. To my pack. I ditched San Francisco. Packed everything I owned in a Pod and a bunch of mismatched suitcases, and jumped on a plane. All I needed was a two-week vacation over the Christmas holiday in the middle of Nowhere, Texas to relax, recharge, and reconnect.
I stretched my legs to their limit and ran flat-out. Ran until every muscle in my body screamed from overuse. Of all the things I’d longed for over the last two years, the freedom to run out in the open stayed right there at the top of my list. It wasn’t for the lack of wide-open spaces. Plenty of beautiful, wild forests and national parks lay north and south of the City, but pack law made them off limits. Forbidden. Craziest stinking rule I’d ever heard.
When my strength gave out and my claws lost their purchase in the hard ground, I skidded to a stop, flopped on my side, and breathed in the warm smell of the earth, the pungent scrub, the trees, and the night.
I rolled on my back, ground the soil, dead leaves, and twigs into my golden, coffee-colored fur as I twisted my spine from side to side. Sweet heavens, it felt fantastic to get good and dirty. As I stared up into the night sky, millions of stars seemed to welcome me home. I howled my greeting back to them. Damn, I’d missed those little sparkling specks of light.
The fresh air smelled clean and sweet. Like home. Not of the ocean or fish or seaweed or the thousands of other odors my sensitive nose picked up. Still, the fragrant scent of soil, the aromatic scrub and dry, brown winter grass reminded me of the other reason my adventure had failed.
The most important reason.
My dad had mated his mom and stuck Dain with a label—step-brother—though I never thought of him in that sense.
And I thought about him a lot.
Every damn day.
For two years.
Perhaps, when I saw him again, the overwhelming need to be near him, to touch him, to taste his scent on my tongue, to feel the warmth of his skin, will have faded. If not, then I’d deal with it, stick to my plan, and move on.
I rolled and stood up on shaky legs. Sniffed the cold air to find my way, found the thread…his scent…and let my nose lead me back to where I wanted to be.